"You cannot be serious." Anesh said. He was sitting at one of the wire frame tables outside the coffee shop near their apartment, arm frozen holding a cappuccino halfway to his lips. He wasn't alone; James and Alanna sat around the same table, evenly spaced on the circular edge. Alanna was, just like Anesh himself, wearing an incredulous expression on her face and staring at James. "No, but really though. What?" He set his drink down, folding his hands and waiting for James to respond.
"I'm serious!" James said, in a voice far more defensive than Anesh's had been accusatory. He cleared his throat and then continued in a normal tone. "It was weak. Like, *way* weaker than the other one I got in a fight with."
They were talking about the stuffed shirt that had torn into the apartment only an hour earlier. It had come up as Anesh was reassuring Alanna that she had, really, not just shot a real person. And that was when James had revealed an awkward fact that he'd noticed.
Alanna rapped her knuckles on the table. "James, it threw me into a patch of blackberry bushes. Like, one-armed, picked me up and flung me twenty feet. Into fucking thorns. So, before I make you help me go back to your apartment and rip up that entire strip of foliage, explain how the fuck that counts as *weaker*?"
"Well, weaker is typically what you call something that wasn't as strong..." James started.
"Anesh, he's being stupid. Show him your arm again." Alanna said, making a looping gesture with her hand.
Holding up his arm and pointing at it for James to see, Anesh asked. "Are you telling me this is weak?"
"Weak-ER. Not weak, obviously. It took a chunk out of the damn wall by accident, it's a huge threat." James conceded. "But it just wasn't on par with the one in the dungeon. I was fighting it, toe to toe, and if I'd had more space I think I could have taken it. No help or coffee or anything. And yeah, I've been working out and got some martial arts orbs, but that's not enough. So, yes, I'm serious, I think it was weaker." He concluded.
Alanna leaned back, throwing her head over the back of the chair and looking up at the night sky. "Well shit, that's horrifying."
"Indeed." Anesh murmured. "But why? Because it was outside the dungeon?"
"Yeah, how the fuck did it do that anyway?" Alanna asked. "Like, did it get a signal when you unleashed your brainpet, and then run all the way there?"
James swallowed a sip of his mocha. "Or was it just waiting?"
"What? Waiting where?" Alanna asked with a snort.
"I dunno, just hiding around somewhere?" James shrugged. "They don't need food or anything, just... orbs..." He trailed off.
Anesh stepped in. "Say now. That's a good point." James nodded thoughtfully, while Alanna just looked between the two of them.
"What?" She asked, shortly.
Motioning to the green orb that she had been rolling around the table, Anesh answered. "It dropped a green, yeah? But the other one dropped a yellow. A *huge* yellow. Why didn't this one? And James, you just said..."
"...that they feed on yellows, yeah." James finished, comprehension dawning on him. "It probably was just sitting out there for who knows how long! It wouldn't need to eat, just avoid detection. Hell, it could have just sat on the roof. Or at the bottom of the little lake!" He slapped the table. "That's why it was weak! It was starving!"
Alanna cut short his celebration a bit. "But wait, that leaves a more important question. The fuck tripped it? And why did it still have a green? Does that mean that greens don't 'feed' them?" She leaned back, taking her hand off the orb on the table and looking at it a little suspiciously. "What's the takeaway, I guess?"
"Can't tell you on the green." James said sadly. "You know as much as we do there. But I think that it's safe to say that what activated it was us 'remembering' Sarah."
"But we don't remember Sarah." Alanna reminded him. "We remember Wes, who we never forgot. We just found Sarah's room."
James shrugged, cutting off Anesh before he could respond himself. "We remember Wes because Wes was too unimportant to forget? Honestly, I think that Wes just 'was a roommate', you know? Like, he lived with us, but we had to not think about him, or we'd have to think about the third bedroom."
Anesh got a chance to cut in. "We could have remembered Wes, we just couldn't have remembered him living with us. Maybe that was the problem, not Sarah. We got too close to remembering that one room, and its contents?"
The three of them sat there quietly, mulling that over for a second. A cool night breeze drifted by, taking away some of the heat of the day. In the distance, frog croaks echoed through the air.
"So... does anyone remember anything about Sarah herself?" James asked with a tight voice. He felt a little lost; he was out of his depth entirely. The whole concept of having his memories rewritten was horrifying, and he was really only staying calm thanks to Secret helping him keep the panic at bay. He... actually wasn't really sure how he was doing that, honestly. Secret hadn't spelled it out to him. James was a bit curious whether or not his panic was literally being eaten by his imaginary friend. If so, he had concerns about the change in diet, but he wasn't going to complain if it was working.
He snapped out of his thoughts just in time to catch the end of something Alanna was saying. James asked her what she'd said, and she just glared at him, but grudgingly repeated, "I said no, but then a lot of other stuff about what we'd heard on the recording? Not paying attention at all, are you? Ya twit." She reached over and bopped him on the back of the head.
"I don't remember anything either." Anesh said softly. "It's not great." He took a sip of his drink, before continuing. "But we have her room now. So she must have been real." Looking up at the other two, making sure he had their attention, he added, "We also have her map. Which goes basically the same way we were going, and a bit beyond, before stopping. Which asks us a question, now doesn't it?"
"Do we follow in her footsteps." James nodded. "I mean, I vote yes."
Alanna sat back, considering. "Why?" She asked. It wasn't a very aggressive why, but it was an important one. She wanted to make sure they were doing this for the right reasons, and were on the same page.
Anesh echoed her question. "Yes, James. Why?" He already knew why, honestly. He wanted to see where they'd gone, perhaps find a clue as to what had happened. And, of course, learn a bit more about the dungeon. Constantly, he wanted to know more about the dungeon.
No matter what Anesh was thinking was the right answer, though, he was a bit caught out by what James actually replied with. "Because we might find her." He said. "Like, I know it's kind of unlikely, but... guys, have you forgotten that we found a dungeon? Not even earlier tonight, Anesh, you were reminding us that there's a lot of legitimately weird stuff going on, and we can't take anything for granted. So, yeah, we could use her map for delving, we could get some good intel out of it. We could maybe even uncover some secret stuff that we'd otherwise miss. But there's always going to be a chance that she's still alive, and that we can *find her*."
Silence for a second, and then, Alanna, saying, "I can't fucking believe I didn't think of that. Yeah, of course. Of course she might be alive. Duh. Logic is out the window here. She's been gone for at least months, though, right? Just going by the 'food' in her room."
"It's a longshot, but it's worth checking. I mean, maybe I just have a massive paladin complex, but I have a hard time thinking that it's okay to leave someone behind in that place. Even if we don't remember them." James told his friends.
Anesh felt more than a little sheepish for thinking almost exactly that. But he agreed; once James spelled it out, it was pretty clear to him what the morally right course of action was. "Okay," he said, "I should have thought of that. Yes. I'm with you, we go try to find her. But! Also make use of any information we can get. We can be pragmatic while also seeing if we can find our... friend?"
"Friend." Alanna confirmed. She'd heard the recorded conversations; if Sarah was real, she was a friend, whether they remembered her or not.
"That does bring us to something I'm concerned about." Anesh told them. "If we're going to keep going back in, we're going to need to be better equipped. I know we've talked about this before, but really. I don't know if the stuff we've bought and worked on is going to cut it?"
Alanna slapped the table. "I was gonna ask! Did the maul you ordered for me ever come in?"
"You were gonna ask?" James raised an eyebrow.
"I was! Wait, why am I defending myself to you? That's a legitimate question about my hammer." She retorted. "Anesh! Hammer!"
Choking back a laugh, Anesh turned it into a small cough, and then told her, "Yeah, it's coming in. A lot of stuff is, really. I'm just wondering if there's anything we can add to it?"
"There's such a thing as over preparing, you know." James told him.
"Lies." Anesh replied without missing a beat.
All of them shared a laugh at that one, started by Alanna as the guys set off her sense of humor with their back-and-forth. After they got past it, though, James carried on. "But really. What more could we need? We both had a dozen things we thought would be helpful, but we got those. We've also got more thermite, for dealing with anything that could be charitably defined as nightmare fuel, and I am... mostly... done making a new launcher. Do we just start specializing to an extreme?"
"Pressure washer!" Alanna cried out, slapping the table again and causing James to grab at his drink to keep it from tipping over as she upset the table.
After recovering his mocha and settling it back down, he glared over at her, and simply asked, "What?"
"I... thought it was kind of self-explanatory. We get a pressure washer. You know, for the construction workers." Alanna replied.
"Construction... oh, because they're made of paper. I still like stuffed shirt better. Anyway, are they actually enough paper to make it work if we hose them down?" James pondered.
Anesh shook his head. "They only seem to be *full* of paper. And dust. Probably paper dust. *Hopefully* paper dust. I don't see them falling to pieces if they get soggy."
Letting out a small hum and gulping at the drink he'd just sipped, James countered. "I ripped off one of the first one's arms, though. It kinda had the consistency of paper. If nothing else, a pressure washer might actually be able to ruin a shellaxy or a black hawk if it turns out they're hostile."
"Sorry, hang on," Alanna interrupted, "black hawks?"
James turned back to her. "You know those flocks of paper that we see fluttering around like birds?" She nodded in response. "Well, a while back, I made a few paper airplanes, and either they animated or the dungeon just stole the idea. So, now, every now and then, I see one of them up there. And it looks like they hunt the paper flocks, so I call them blackhawks. Since, you know, they're aircraft, and also kinda birds."
"Um... James?" Anesh cut in. "Black Hawks aren't airplanes. They're helos."
"I mean, I know that. But the joke doesn't work if I name them after the SR-71 Blackbird, because then I don't get to call them hawks." James sheepishly responded.
Anesh shifted around a bit, settling into his chair. "I'm just saying, the name doesn't work that well."
"Let me have this. It's a paper airplane and I'll name it after the military aircraft of my choice." Came the snippish reply from James. "Anyway. Now that I think about it, Alanna has a point that a pressure washer might have use. What's our budget look like? Maybe we could just rent one for a couple days and see if it works. Point it at a flock of paper and see if we get a million orbs from it."
Raising a hand, Alanna cut in. "As amusing as it is to see James get smacked down, do we have anything we want to try to get this week? I know you guys have stuff to take care of, but I find myself with an expanse of free time, so, James, was there anything else on your list that I could try to find around town so we don't have to wait for shipping?"
"Helmets." James said without hesitation. "Seriously, maybe find a better military surplus store and see if they have something with a visor. I'm tired of getting sharp things near my eyes." He pulled his phone out and opened up his list of gear ideas. "I picked up some USB sticks, so that's covered. Anesh, did you order flare guns?"
"Yup." His friend said simply, standing up to go put his empty drink cup in the bus bin. He took a minute to stretch his legs and breath in the fresh air of the outdoor setting.
"That's all I can really think of. Maybe try to find a riot shield for sale or something. Actually maybe just go ask the police if they'll loan us a riot shield. And a grenade launcher." James shrugged, raising his eyebrows in a comically hopeful expression.
Anesh sat back down. "Your country scares me."
"But yeah, heavily armed police force aside, I don't think we have anything else we need." James said. "Like, there's kind of a limit to how much we can carry, and how far we can specialize."
Alanna considered what she was about to ask for a second, before setting aside her worries and asking anyway. "What about your gun? Can I bring that in?"
"Now that I know it works on the employees, yes." James didn't hesitate.
This did bring up another point in Anesh's mind. They hadn't really had time to just sit down and talk like this, and the relaxed environment was making it a lot easier for him to see more of their options. The scent of clipped grass floating by, the cool iron of his chair, the company of his two closest friends and companions, all of it was going a long way toward letting him relax, and get rid of some of his tunnel vision that had been plaguing him ever since James introduced an extra fourteen hours of responsibility into his already busy week.
Granted, it also added eight hours of time to have that responsibility in. But that wasn't really helpful when it ruined his sleep pattern.
Still, now that he wasn't worried about them not dying right now, and with the ability to feel safe just sitting back and enjoying his drink, he was struck with a thought.
"Hey." Anesh said. "We really need to be maximizing our use of the xenotech we find, too. Not just relying on our new income to buy us better gear."
"Good point, I can shoot something with fireballs!" Alanna said, with a lot more cheerful energy than Anesh expected.
James patted her on the shoulder. "You would want to fireball someone, wouldn't you?"
She leaned forward and let out a grumbled, "Everyone wants to fireball someone."
"Yes, fireballs for everything in our way." Anesh said. "We should test to see if we can use other darts in that gun, too. If not, we've only got five shots. But not just that. We've got the map pointer, and those shades that let us see into infrared. We need to be folding those into our tactics."
James grimaced. "Those shades gave me a migraine."
Alanna turned and patted him on the shoulder in a mirror of his previous mocking. "There there, punchy. We'll get you a magic item some day."
"Xenotech." Anesh corrected.
"Magic. Item." James corrected.
Alanna held her hands between the two of them. "Okay boys, calm down. Flirt later, and in a way that's more fun for me." She pushed them each back a bit. "Can one of you explain to me why we haven't been finding more magic... tech... fuck it, more doodads? The ones that are useful are *really* useful. Why aren't we looking for them harder?"
"They're hard to spot." James explained. "Like, you've got the pen that can liquify concrete, and anything less durable than concrete, like people, right? If you set that down on your desk, and it got mixed up, would you be able to tell at a glance it was enchanted?"
"Nnnnnno. No." Alanna said slowly, with growing concern and understanding.
James nodded as she got it. "Exactly. The dungeon has eight billion pens, and two of them are nuclear weapons. Needle in a haystack. Pen in a pen stack, actually."
"We need some way to search faster, then?" She offered.
"There's always Lily." Anesh said, offering up a suggestion. "She can scan objects, too. We don't even have to use her to fully scan the xenotech. Just see if it pops up a progress bar, since the enhanced stuff takes longer for her to understand."
Alanna punched James lightly in the shoulder. "Why didn't you tell me about that?" She demanded lightly.
"Because I forget things!" He cried out, rubbing his arm and ducking away from her assault. "I can't be asked to remember every superpower I've acquired in the last month!"
"Yes you can!" Alanna and Anesh choroused at him.
He slid down in his chair, wondering if it would be possible to just hide under the table until this all blew over.
"Changing the subject a bit," Alanna said, turning to Anesh while James tried to make a shelter out of their table, "you're the general leader of our little group, right? I wanted to ask you about actual tactics."
From under the table came a, "Why am I not the leader?" as James overheard them.
"Because Anesh doesn't hide from me when I ask pointed questions." Alanna poked at him with her foot. "Anyway. We brought in JP and Dave, and I don't think that was the worst idea, but five people is kinda awkward in the hallways there. We should consider doing actual practice fights together, instead of just relying on dungeon time to get us up to speed."
Tapping at his chin, Anesh considered it. "That's a good point. But when? I've got school, James works most of the time. JP has to take care of his sisters, and Dave is... actually, does anyone really know what the bollocks Dave does?" He trailed off into the question.
James plopped himself back in his chair, giving up on the joke. "He works for an animal shelter."
Both of his friends stared at him incredulously. It was Alanna who broke the stunned silence first. "What, seriously?"
"Yeah, you guys never wondered why he talks about his dogs so much?" James turned to look back inside the coffee shop. "I'm thinking of getting a cake. Do either of you guys want cake?"
"No, go back to... well, yes, I want cake. But go back to how Dave works in an animal shelter. Dave? *Our* Dave? Dave is... trying to say this nicely... nope, can't do it. Dave is kind of a dick." Alanna said.
James stood up, reaching his arms up over his head. He paused for a minute in his answer to try to track a bat flying by overhead, but then looked back down at Alanna before going in to purchase some cake. "He's a dick to people, not animals. I'm pretty sure that he'll be the first one to tame a shellaxy, honestly. He just really loves dogs. Anyway, you asked what he does all day. It's mostly that. He puts in, like, twelve hour days."
"Well shit." Alanna said to Anesh as James headed off. "Now I feel like a dick."
Anesh shook his head. "Don't. Dave's still a wanker."
She shrugged in response. "Maybe, but no one who takes care of dogs for twelve hours a day can be that bad. I mostly just assumed his entire persona was smoking and playing stupid D&D characters."
"He does have a fascination with stupid ideas, doesn't he?" Anesh mused.
"On that note," Alanna said, "was it actually a good idea to tell Dave and JP? I know I'm the new girl on the team compared to you two, but... how secret do we want to keep this?" She'd put quite a lot of thought into this over the last couple weeks. "Do we keep recruiting? And if so, how do we handle things like security and logistics and even just getting everyone into the building? I know Frank gets bribed a ludicrous amount of money to do nothing, but will that last forever?"
Anesh held up his hands. "One question at a time! I'm gonna need more caffeine to handle any more questions." He looked forlornely into his empty cup. "First of all, I don't know. Maybe it was jumping the gun a bit to tell them. But... it was mostly just a reaction to *not* being able to tell anyone."
The memories of when they'd had their tongues locked by mental invaders they couldn't fight was painful to bring up. The time before Secret was Secret, when it was just another tool that part of the dungeon used to hurt them, wasn't something Anesh looked back on fondly. He wasn't a vindictive person, but he honestly couldn't say he was sorry that his intruder had starved to death.
He wondered if its corpse was still in there somewhere.
"Anyway." He continued, shaking it off. "We did, and have to deal with it now. I don't think we expand right away; though it would be nice to have an even number of people so we could split up properly. You're right that we can't fit five people in a hallway." He thought for a second. "Do you have any names we could put on a short list?" Anesh asked her. "If we did want to start recruiting, that is."
Alanna didn't reply for a second, and Anesh could see that her mouth twisted a bit while she looked down at the ground. "No one really springs to mind." She said with a small hitch in her voice. "I don't have anyone I trust that isn't you guys."
"That's both flattering and kind of sad." Anesh said, and instantly regretted it. His regret was made manifest when Alanna smiled a small bit and also punched him in the arm. "Ow! That... that's fair, yeah. But honestly," he rubbed at his arm, noting that he'd gotten it a lot worse than James, "I'm in the same situation. I don't really have a good roster of options either."
Alanna rolled the green orb around the table a bit, making circles with it, one finger perched right on the top. "So how do we get JP and Dave more practiced? Split up again, but divide them between the three of us, so you don't have to double-babysit?"
Not having to babysit two liabilities at once sounded great to Anesh, and he said as much. "Honestly, when you mentioned practice fights earlier, that sounded good. I'm just not sure where we'd get that kind of experience would be better than just 'the outskirts of the dungeon', yeah?"
"I'll see about looking up some training methods and plan something out for next week." Alanna said. "We can at least put in half an hour of practice before starting the real delve. And that's a good chance to do some speed-looting. Since I'm now on payroll for this whole affair, and I find myself lacking gainful employment, I'm a bit more invested than before in stockpiling as much cash as we can from the dungeon."
"Yeah, I'm really sorry you got fired." Anesh sympathized with her. "Do you have enough cash to get you through the week? We still have a bunch left over in the group bank, and I can give you some if you need it."
"Buy me another smoothie, but aside from that, I should be good. I'll just make sure to take home a bit for myself next time we go in, and make sure that I'm secure." She sighed. "I'm just not sure what to do now. I haven't had actual free time in a long, long time. Not since... not since I was a kid." Anesh didn't miss the cut sentence, but didn't bring it up. "What do people do when they're not working?"
He shrugged. "Search me. I go to class, then come home and do more schoolwork. Then, I plan out the games I run for you guys. Then I sleep. Then sometimes my bloody roommate drags me into a deathtrap for fun and profit."
The laugh from Alanna rippled through the air, making Anesh smile and helping to further ease away the fear from earlier in the night. "Ah, well." She said to Anesh. "He might be a bit nuts sometimes, but you love him."
"Yeah." Anesh responded, not really thinking about it. Then he saw Alanna grinning at him, and realized what he'd said. "Wait, no, hang on!"
"Too late!" She yelled out triumphantly. "I fucking knew it! Yes! Vindication!" Her fists pumped into the air in a frenzied dance of victory.
Anesh thunked his head onto the table. "Please no." He knew that Alanna wasn't going to let this go. There was only one "If I confess my undying love for you, will that sidetrack this nightmare?"
"Nope! Though it does open up a more interesting prospect for a Friday night date." She replied, continuing to shadowbox the air around her. Less frantic, more just enjoying the feeling of motion, and keeping the joke going. "Really, though. I'm just kidding. And I won't tell."
"Tell what?" James said, coming back to the table with his cake. "Also, who're you dating?"
"I literally just said I wouldn't tell, James. Have some tact." Alanna chastised him. "Also, let me have a bite of your cake." She reached over. "Also, *I'm* not dating anyone."
He neither made the connection, nor wanted to share his cake. In fact, he took great pains to situate his cake as far from Alanna as possible. And then slid his chair back to hold it in his lap, as Anesh tried to lean in and steal a chunk of it while James had his back turned. "You're both monsters." He scolded them. "What did I miss aside from your romantic lives?" He then asked.
"Well," Anesh said, "we're thinking we use a half an hour of our time each week to do some basic practice together with the others. You and I have movement down okay, but we also need to just learn how to coordinate better. Alanna was gonna look into that."
She nodded, still eyeing the chocolate raspberry sugar explosion on James' plate. "I'm thinking of getting some of the squad training manuals from the military surplus store. Or just googling them? Either way, might be useful just to know."
"I like that plan." James said. "It was weird coming back to see you guys hadn't really made progress because of a small mistake."
"Yeah, I think Dave was treating it like a game? We should make it clear that we get injured regularly. Actually, I should just remind them that the month I spent with my arm broken was because of one of the stuffed shirts." Anesh said.
Alanna jerked back a bit. "That's what did it?! Holy shit. I know you said it was the dungeon, but I didn't press it." She shook her head. "I was really worried about you, ya know."
"I know." Anesh said, smiling. "And I appreciate it."
James cut in. "Same here. I sure wasn't going to feed him while he was out of commission."
"James, I could still feed myself. Also, you could absolutely feed me, I know you've got cooking skills." Anesh retorted.
Alanna held up a finger. "Point of order. James once set rice on fire. Oh, wait, you mean dungeon skills. Nevermind." She said, seeing James about to respond and shrugging off her own mistake. "So, hey, speaking of dungeon skills, I just thought of something. Can we jump back to a previous topic?"
"Sure, what's up?" James asked, curious.
"What about the yellow orbs?" Alanna asked the two of them.
Anesh and James shared a look with each other. "Do you...?" Anesh motioned to James, and his friend nodded.
He turned to Alanna, he and Anesh folding their hands on the table in front of themselves. "Well, you see, the creatures in the dungeon will often drop small yellow spheres when they..."
"I know where they come from you fuck!" She yelled out. Alanna cleared her throat, and adopted a deliberately passive tone. "To elaborate, I should ask, why do the orbs feed the dungeon mobs, but give us skills?"
"Oh, that's easy." James said without thinking. "We're cracking them, not absorbing them." Now Anesh and Alanna both turned to look at *him*, putting James under some curious scrutiny. "What?" He said to their raised eyebrows. "We know that the orbs can be absorbed, because that's what Rufus and Ganesh do, and because I managed to do it once to that one blue. So, clearly, there's just a difference between absorbing and cracking."
"James." Anesh said, tilting his head down and massaging his forehead. "You did what?" Alanna sat her elbows on the table, leaned into her hands, and just let out a low scream.
In his head, James heard a small whine, as Secret had one of his food sources taken away as the information was shared.
"Ah." James said. "Right. I forgot a number of things. Okay, well, I absorbed a blue orb. It took Secret's help to do it, though. That's why I ended up in the hospital recently, remember? It gave me a limited use ability, with limited uses. In every sense of that term, yes." He answered the questions about to be asked. "I can sublimate rubber. I didn't tell you because I didn't want anyone to get hurt trying to replicate it, and because Secret literally feeds off of secrets, and it seemed a harmless enough way to keep him happy."
Alanna started headbutting the tabletop while Anesh just leaned over and patted James on the head. "I'm sure you meant well, friend." He sat back in his chair. "This is big, though. This is... hm." He pulled out a small yellow orb from his pocket and looked at it. "I wonder..."
"Where'd that come from?" Alanna asked from her position spread across the table.
"I save some of mine." Anesh said. "For emergencies." He looked at the orb, gazing into it, rolling it in his fingers. The other two watched him, waiting for him to say what was on his mind. But he stayed silent. James took a bite of cake, Alanna checked the time on her phone, and in the distance, an owl called out.
James was just about to break the stillness when Anesh suddenly let out a small gasp of amazement, and the little yellow ball slipped into the palm of his hand.
"What the fuck!" Alanna barked out.
Jumping out of his chair, James got ready to catch Anesh if his friend convulsed and fell like he did when he absorbed the blue. But, to his surprise, Anesh seemed perfectly fine. "Are you okay?!" He demanded from his friend.
Anesh responded with some kind of affirmative, but he wasn't really paying attention to James at the moment. He'd found it surprisingly easy to put himself in the mindset that the orbs were something he could take inside himself, and while it had felt disturbing at best to drag it under his skin, what happened afterward was what caught his attention. First came a feeling of stability. Of being perfectly content. A thousand small things just went away, and the absence was instantly noticeable in its impact. His foot didn't itch, his back tooth didn't hurt, his eyes weren't tired, and he wasn't feeling that little bit of hunger he'd felt building up over the last hour. The second thing that caught his attention was the notification.
[+2.2 Operational Hours : Comfortable]
"Well that's certainly something." Anesh muttered.
"What..." James started to ask, but then Anesh slapped the table and scowled.
Cutting James off, Anesh growled out, "I know this is pretty cool, but I just realized that this is one more thing that is *ruining my sodding sleep schedule*!". He took a deep breath, and found that the taste of the air was a little more pronounced. But more than that, he found that he didn't feel like he actually needed the deep breath. Curious, Anesh held his breath, and counted. James and Alanna watched as their friend inhaled, held it, and then just sat there for a good minute or two.
James leaned in toward Anesh, curiously poking at his friend. "Did he die?" He asked Alanna, not really worried and sort of amused.
Slapping James' hand away, Anesh resumed breathing normally. "No, I did not die, you wanker. I was just testing this." He tapped at his phone on the table while he talked. "It told me it added 'Operational hours', which sounds fine. But I think that for the duration, I actually... don't have physical needs? If it weren't for how weird it feels, I don't think I'd have to breathe at all. I'm not hungry, a lot of small pains are gone, it's just... great, actually."
"So, is this just what we use yellows for now?" Alanna asked, a bit sadly.
"Well," Anesh said, "we'd need to have a lot of them. This only gave me two hours. Also, it seems like a weird tradeoff."
Alanna nodded, but James didn't quite get it. "What do you mean?" James asked him.
"Well, skills are permanent, right? But this absolutely isn't." Anesh replied. "So, anytime we want an all-nighter without any after effects, we need to sacrifice four random skill levels."
"Harsh trade, I see." James said.
"So," Alanna cut in, "what do I do with this green one then?" Her words drew the attention of the others to the orb on the table that she'd been casually rolling around throughout the conversation. "I mean, I was going to just crack it, but, should I be trying to shove it inside my arm or something?"
That got a cringe from James as he imagined the sensation of the fist sized orb pushing into flesh. "Nope nope nope." He yelped out. Continuing in a more level tone, he gave an actual answer. "But yeah, I dunno. I mean, it's your orb, I feel like you get to choose?"
"I can already see Anesh vibrating a little at the idea of getting some more data on different uses of orbs." Alanna joked.
James nodded, looking over at Anesh just to make sure that she wasn't being literal about that. "Yeah, well, it's still your choice. Anesh can't make you, no matter how much you glare at me, you bastard." He deliberately turned away from his scowling roommate and focused on talking to Alanna. "Really though. I don't know how much mental gymnastics Anesh had to do just there to absorb the yellow, but I know that it took help from Secret to pull in a blue. Oh, and it hospitalized me. I can't imagine that a green would be any better."
Covering the orb with her palm while a couple other patrons walked by their table, Alanna thought about it for about three seconds before coming to a conclusion. "I feel like, while I could totally tank something that would hospitalize *you*..."
"...I still don't want to actually go through that." She finished, ignoring James' protest. "I think my original plan stands. Crack it at that school down the road."
Anesh finished scowling at James to look over at Alanna, and ask, "I know you want to use your powers for good, but are you sure you don't want to use it at your house? Or maybe wait until we get some kind of home base workshop thing?"
It wasn't that Alanna hadn't had that thought. She'd actually put a lot of time into considering the best way to use the different stuff that she might one day get to use from the dungeon. And while there hasn't been aware of the effects of the green orbs for very long, it wasn't that hard to realize from what James and Anesh said that they were super useful. But that just reinforced her desire to use them on someone else. They still gave huge skill ups, and while it would be cool to live in a house where food took twice as long to spoil, or where laundry stayed clean for an extra day regardless of how it was used, she felt like the best way to achieve the most good for the most people was to hit somewhere like a school, hospital, or even just shopping mall.
After all, there were always more orbs. And given how James and Anesh had once run into a Shellaxy army, she didn't doubt that there would be more greens. Eventually, she'd use one for herself. But until then, she was content to take her share of the skill points, and pay it forward with the area buff.
"Nah, I think I'm good." She told Anesh. "I know it could be useful. But, I think that since these are the easiest orbs to 'split' the effects of, that I can safely satisfy my pathological desire to do good while still getting something out of it. Like how gainful employment is supposed to work." She ended the sentence with exaggeratedly optimistic cheer in her voice.
James snickered, but also told her, "I meant it, though. It's your orb, and you use it how you want. If we ever do get some kind of office that we use as a workshop and/or meeting place for planning, then I can see us tithing greens to it. But right now, it doesn't seem worth it. Unless one of them will literally keep the stuffed shirts from coming through the door."
"Hey, yeah. What if the dungeon sends more?" Anesh asked. "I don't want to give you an anxiety attack or anything, but what do we do about that?"
"Security system?" James mused. "We have those wireless cameras. Maybe set one of them up by the door and turn on motion detecting on the app? It's not too complicated."
That was something Anesh wished he'd thought of, though he was pretty happy James just had an answer to the problem. "Alright. That's a start. We need a way to figure out if they're tracking *us*, or the *room*. Because if this wasn't a one off, then we may have to move."
"I haaaate movinnnng." James whined. "Can't we just hire Alanna to sit in the living room and shoot anything that isn't supposed to be there?"
"I have reasonable rates!" Alanna said.
Anesh waved away the suggestion. "I'll consider it. I'll also consider that, since we think this one was 'starving', and had been lying in wait for a while, that it might be a one-off thing. Though it does tell us something horrifying."
"That Alanna already knows what she'd charge us to keep us alive?" James asked.
Anesh slowly held an outstretched finger up to James' lips, silencing him. "It tells us that the dungeon can send things outside itself."
"Are we back to assuming that the dungeon is a sentient thing now?" Alanna asked him with a sigh.
"No, but it does indicate some more organization. There's at least a faction in there, that we're dealing with, right?" Anesh said. "The dungeon keeps changing as we go farther in, but it always looks like James' office, so it seems like it's just acting on instinct. Or maybe isn't a 'person', exactly. But the shirts and maybe the tumblefeeds seem to have some more organization. We should be aware of that."
James held up a hand to ask a question. "Hey, so, going back a step, you remember how I mentioned the blackhawks? Those only really started showing up after I had to make all those paper airplanes. Is it possible the dungeon is stealing ideas from us?"
It wasn't something that they'd ever really considered before. While it made sense that the dungeon continued to change, as it felt like more of a living place than a building, it wasn't something that they felt was guided. Just more effects of the random number generator.
"I think it's probably just... coincidence?" Anesh replied. "Maybe not the right word. But more that it's just copying what it has access to, right? Not an intelligent thing." He shrugged. "If it was doing it on purpose, I feel like they'd be murdering us."
"Good point." James said.
Suddenly struck by a different thought, Anesh redirected the conversation a bit. "Hey, going back a second, Alanna. You mentioned splitting up green orbs?"
Looking up from her phone and the dog gifs she'd been looking at, Alanna made a small confused humming noise, and then processed what Anesh had said and answered. "Oh, yeah." It took her a second to think of how to explain it. "So, the yellows and blues, and probably also oranges? They all give everything to the person using them. The greens, though, from what you said, they give *you* skill points, and they also change the area around you. So, if you're looking to split an orb, and because none of us can figure out what the fuck Rufus is doing when he splits them, that's the easiest way to divide up the effects. At least, until we find more mixed orbs. The purple wasn't mixed, by the way."
"Mixed?" James cut in.
She nodded. "Yeah, like, the blues also have the effects of yellows in them. Same with the oranges and greens. Though the reds seem to be on their own, same with the purples. So I call them mixed. Honestly, now that we know the yellows actually do just provide power to things they're in, it's... probably just that? Like, they're a fuel source? Maybe not though. Could be that different balances get different effects; like, the oranges need a certain amount of yellow in them to bend space in the right ways or something." Alanna said it like it was the most obvious thing in the world.
"I'm really annoyed that you appear to have put more thought into this than I have." Anesh griped. Alanna just smiled at him and blew him a mocking kiss.
"So, we need to start tracking orb mixes, huh? I bet that's why the huge yellow we have at the house is so weird looking; we're seeing other colors under the surface, yeah?" James asked the questions back to back, but didn't pause for answers. "I wonder if it'll have three or four effects attached. Actually, shit. I don't want any more of the red ones."
Alanna frowned a bit. "Why is that? Isn't it a good thing to understand an emotion more?"
"It's weird, but not that bad." James explained. "It's just that I feel like it's changing how I act, and I don't know if I'm comfortable with it? Like, I can more easily empathize with other people now, but in a way that pushes me to act on it. And yes, I see your face light up at that, but think about it from my perspective; that's basically an outside force rewriting my mind. And in a way that I can't get Secret to kill."
"Hm. Point." Alanna said. "I'd like to try some myself, though. See if that's just a special case or an always thing. We have more in Fort Door, yeah?" she asked Anesh.
He nodded slowly. "We do, though I don't know if Rufus was going to use them. He's been tending that little garden of his with a couple that we got. But we do have more, and we can always get extras from the burnouts or blast roasts."
"You guys spend way too much energy on the pun names." She muttered.
James and Anesh just smiled, and in unison gave her a "Thanks!"
The three of them sat there for a bit, thinking of what to say next. James finished up his cake, and collected up the others cups with his plate to take to the bus bin. Alanna shivered a bit and wished she'd brought a coat; it wasn't quite actually summer yet, and the air had dropped in temperature dramatically over the course of their chat here.
"When's the last time we saw a movie?" Alanna mused out loud.
Anesh looked up from his own phone where he was checking on his class assignments. "What?"
"A movie. Or, like, hung out and played games together. Or talked about the news, or the world, or something that wasn't a glittering death trap?" She continued. "Don't get me wrong, I'm enjoying this whole thing. But the dungeon stuff has absolutely consumed our lives. A couple years ago, we'd be sitting here talking about plot holes in the Pokemon universe, or just discussing whatever philosophy book James most recently read. Now it's gear lists and survival tactics. We've turned our own lives into a simulation of how it would be to live in a post-apocalyptic wasteland."
"That's an exaggeration, surely." Anesh said.
"Really?" Alanna asked. "Is it? Think about the last conversation we had, the last *real* conversation, that wasn't about James' office. And I've only been here for two weeks! How the hell have you two not burned out on this?"
"I spent a month out for recovery." Anesh responded. "Also, James is really, really into the whole 'risk and reward' thing. Though, I see your point. We do need to make sure we still have lives." He sighed. "I moved here for college, but I'm starting to wonder if I even have the energy to get through *that*. It's exhausting, and the dungeon on top of it is really draining. Maybe for me, absorbing the yellows is so easy because it's what I need. Badly."
James, coming back, leaned down and perched himself on Anesh's head. "Aaw. Buddy. I didn't realize how bad it was for you! You know you don't need to go delving with us, right? And, hell, you don't need to worry about rent anymore. Take care of yourself first, okay?" He told Anesh.
His roommate shook him off, but with a smile. "I appreciate that. But I *want* to go in with you guys. Maybe it has dominated our lives, but it's just so... fascinating! Everything about it is stupid and random and yet, I just have to know where it all leads."
The other two nodded. They both understood, of course. Maybe it was a gamer thing, or maybe it was just the shared trait that made them all click as friends, but the desire to see what was around the next corner, to poke under all the rocks, was something they all had. And the dungeon offered so many opportunities to see new things and explore new ideas. Even if it was constantly trying to kill them.
"That does remind me," James said. "I want to check out the decision tree again. I want to see if it tells the future, or is just guessing. Also, let's head back to the apartment. I need sleeeeep."
Anesh and Alanna stood up from their chairs to join him, Alanna stretching and Anesh brushing off the rear of his pants. "You'll have to explain how you plan to test that." Anesh said.
"By getting in bed." James replied with a perplexed tone.
Anesh didn't let him out of the headlock until a block later.
The three of them strolled down the quiet streets, lightly chatting, and trying to avoid too much more dungeon talk. After a quick reminder from Alanna and a short diversion, though, they stood in front of a public elementary school. Alanna stood at the front of their group, holding up the green orb in her palm.
"So, do I have to be inside for this to work?" She asked.
"I hadn't considered that." James said. "I guess not? On the property, at least, though."
She nodded, and they walked through the opening in the chain link fence, onto the back field of the school. Past mowed grass and a dusty baseball dugout, until they were standing at the back door of the building, just past a playground. "Alright, here goes nothing." Alanna said. "I'm sure as hell not breaking into a school right now, so, let's see if this works." And she squeezed down on the emerald ball in her hand.
[Local Area Shift : Exercise efficiency, -280 kcal use/hour, +14% muscle development rate]
[+4 Skill Ranks : Juggling - Combat]
"Oh, this is going to be the best damn playground ever." She murmured to herself with a smile.
After they got back to the apartment and Alanna headed home, James took the longest shower of his life. He had a lot of stuff to think about, and his frazzled brain didn't seem to really want to make any useful connections, so he just stood under the hot water and zoned out until he couldn't breathe through the steam filling the bathroom and was forced back to reality.
It wasn't until he was about to get back to his room that he realized they hadn't done anything with the body of the stuffed shirt, and he tactfully shut the door to Sarah's room. While he was still uncomfortable as all hell to have the corpse just laying there on the floor, at least it wasn't going to get up in the middle of the night and strangle him. Especially not now that he'd had that thought, and wouldn't be sleeping. Ever again.
He texted Alanna about helping him dispose of the body the next day, and she just sent him back fire emojis until he gave up and muted his phone.
Flopping back on his bed, he stared up at the ceiling, just letting himself drift off to sleep and process the events of the day. That is, until he felt a small poking at his arm, and looked down to see Lily had crawled up onto the blankets with him.
He smiled a bit, and reached down to pet the iLipede that he'd kidnapped and/or adopted, depending on your viewpoint. And while doing so, he noticed that a certain progress bar had finally completed, and there was a notification on the screen. Squealing with delight, he opened up the app to look at exactly what it was that the giant yellow orb on his floor had been identified as. Though he was less interested in the results, and more just super excited that after he showed Anesh, he'd be able to finally crack it for himself, and become... well, he didn't really know, did he? God of Making Sandwiches Really Good or something, probably.
James' eyes fell on the words on the screen. It took him a few seconds to understand what he had just read, and then a few more to process it.
And then he stumbled out of his door back into the hallway. Brushing Anesh aside, he lurched into the bathroom and vomited up the remains of his cake; a sickening twisted feeling burning itself in the pit of his stomach and at the back of his mind. He vaguely registered Anesh saying something to him, asking if he was okay. He felt his friend's hands on his head, checking his temperature, and squeezing his shoulders, holding him up. James couldn't respond, though. He could barely stay standing, braced on the bathroom counter. He realized he *hadn't* stayed standing, and he was sitting on the bathroom floor. Anesh said something else, care and concern painted on his face.
He was asking what was wrong.
James couldn't answer. He just held up Lily, still squirming in his grasp, and showed Anesh the screen.
The orb had been scanned. Identified. Thoroughly examined. And the little phone bug had given them a simple output for all those weeks of work.
Power unit type : Personal. Operational time : 15,670 hrs/1k. Contains : Jerome.
Anesh dropped Lily back in James' lap.
All he could think to say was, "Well. Fuck."
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Bio: I write stuff, and have a lot of thoughts about narrative structure and tropes. Some of the stuff I write is here, the rest can be found over on Reddit on my r/hfy author page. Feel free to message me if you want to talk about ideas, or just have questions about anything I made!